Using Storytelling as an Organization Change Lever

With all the talk about new technology, sometimes is good to remind ourselves about old ‘tools’. Storytelling, an ancient art form, has considerable applicability for current attempts to improve organization performance. How? Consider for a moment the upheaval underway within the pharmaceutical industry.

Ancient History: When I worked in the Pharmaceutical industry, it was literally awash with money. I travelled to Hawaii twice to run executive development programmes. To say that the agenda was less-than-onerous is like saying that Vincent Browne can be a tad argumentative. We ran the training sessions during the mornings and finished at lunchtime every day. There were plenty of distractions across the islands and the time off was easily filled with R&R activities. In reality, executive training at that time was an integral part of the reward system in an industry that was margin-rich. Pina Coladas, sunshine, multi-colored shirts. What’s not to like here?

Roll it Collette: Let’s bring the story up to date. Today there is huge price pressure within the industry – with a renewed focus on generic medicines, an attack on product prices from the government and all sorts of rules emerging around doctors prescribing behaviors. Side by side with this, high cost manufacturing is migrating to low wage countries while, in Ireland, drug re-sellers and centralized distributers are squeezing traditional margins. No one is booking tickets to Hawaii now, unless it’s to emigrate!

Same Story: While the details may differ, a version of the above story can be told about many industries. The central message emerging in almost all of the consulting work we do is ‘the game has changed’. Old rules are being thrown overboard as new ways of working become established. It’s change or die. Emerging out of all of this is a potential opportunity. Organizations that develop an ability not just to survive, but to actively embrace these changes ahead of the competition, can put rocket fuel on their performance.

Breaking Tradition: All successful change management projects need to overcome an early hurdle. The first step in the journey is creating an appetite for change – a readiness to move forward. Arguably, the Tsunami of bad news that has washed over us in 2010 has softened resistance to change, in some cases radically so. Where the challenges faced are large, tweaking the existing system is not enough. Taking an organization to the next performance level – often requires a radical shift in perspective– new strategic directions, shattering existing covenants, restructuring,
overhauling ways of working, engaging the troops and so forth. The 5 Sorrowful Mysteries are rolled out as the change game switches onto full power.

Bad News Diet: Yet, just ‘rolling out the bad news’ has two potential downsides. Firstly, it is often perceived as disrespectful, rubbishing past achievements made. Secondly, it can cause panic with the real danger that some (often the best) employees can make a ‘Titanic’ call i.e. abandon ship. So, there is a balance needed between introducing enough bad news to unfreeze the existing organization while, at the same time, being positive about the future.

Using Storytelling: In trying to manage this conundrum, one useful method is to use the medium of storytelling. Example: let’s say that you want to tell your staff that there is a big competitive threat on the horizon (the Bad News). However, all of your competitors are facing the same threat (Good News provided that you can respond more swiftly than them). Option A = Produce a ‘death by PowerPoint’ analysis – 37 detailed slides in glorious Technicolor. Option B =  Tell the following story…

There were two guys camping in the woods. As they were getting ready to sleep, one noticed that his mate was leaving on his runners and asked why he was doing this.
‘In case we get attacked by a bear during the night’. The 2nd camper replied:
‘You’re wasting your time. Bears can move at over 30 miles an hour. You’ll never outrun it’
‘I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you’.

You are facing a tough competitive market. And so are your competitors. Now, where are those Fat Face runners we bought in the sales? It doesn’t matter if staff have already heard it. It’s not a joke (the whole point of the story is that the situation faced is anything but funny).

Storytelling, an art form that has been around for thousands of years, is a potent communications tool. Could you use it to support your messaging internally? In my experience, the best communicators add it to their armory.

Paul Mooney

PS Gloomy? Need a laugh? Have a quick look at the following technology clip from Ronnie Corbett.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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